President Obama isn’t just sending in the Green Berets as he begins to re-enter the war in Iraq. U.S. diplomats and military officers are also reaching out to discarded tribal allies and even the Iraqi who progressives blame for tricking George W. Bush into invading Iraq in the first place.
On Wednesday, Brett McGurk, the senior State Department official responsible for policy on Iraq, met in Baghdad at the home of Ahmed Chalabi, the former exile leader who was supported by neoconservatives inside the Bush administration before the Iraq war.
The meeting, first reported by The New York Times, was the first time McGurk had traveled to Chalabi’s Baghdad estate, according to Chalabi’s Washington adviser, Francis Brooke. “They discussed the current politics and Dr. Chalabi told him it would be very difficult for (Nouri al) Maliki to continue as prime minister,” Brooke told The Daily Beast.
The outreach to Chalabi is part of a frantic scramble by U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence agencies to respond to the growing violence in Iraq before the country collapses. On Thursday, Obama announced that he was sending up to 300 U.S. special operations forces to Iraq—in addition to the 275 such troops already in country. Manned and unmanned aircraft are also now in the region. The U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, has been dispatched to the Persian Gulf. Senior U.S. military officials say they have the capability to launch airstrikes within a matter of hours against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the terror group that has seized control of several key Iraqi cities.
It’s all part of a major shift for the Obama administration. Not only did the President pull out all remaining troops from Iraq in 2011. But since Obama came into power in 2009, U.S. diplomats in Baghdad have taken a largely hands-off approach to Iraq’s politics. For example, the U.S. military’s relationship with the Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders who helped oust the predecessor to ISIS in Anbar province largely withered away in the last five years.
Sterling Jensen, who served as the U.S. army translator with the Iraqi tribal fighters during the surge in 2007 and 2008, said U.S. military advisers who remained in Iraq after 2011—when all U.S. troops left—curtailed contact with many of the tribal leaders so as not to anger Maliki’s government.
“It’s been difficult for the military to do things, the U.S. embassy has wanted to show the Iraqi government that no one is gathering intelligence without the Iraqi government knowing about it,” said Jensen, who still keeps in close contact with the tribal leaders of Anbar and western Iraq. “Sending 300 special operations forces to Iraq could be a way to have some teams go out to Anbar and find out what is going on and rekindle these relationships that will be crucial to defeating ISIS.”
A senior administration official on Thursday said those new special operations forces would be broken out into 12-man teams and at first would be working in and around Baghdad mainly. The teams themselves would not be engaged in combat either and instead, according to this official, work to assess the state of Iraq’s military and provide on the ground intelligence about ISIS. “The broader approach is one in which the Iraqis are taking the lead against [ISIS], providing for security in the country,” one senior administration official told reporters Thursday.
Some of the Iraqis who could be persuaded to take that lead are the former tribal allies who fought al Qaeda before. U.S. and Iraqi officials say McGurk and other U.S. military officers and diplomats have begun to reach out again in recent months to them.
One of those leaders who have been in renewed contact with the Americans is Ahmed abu-Risha, whose brother was killed in 2007 and was considered the first leader of what became known as the Anbar Awakening.
McGurk has also met with Ali Hatim Suleiman, the head of Iraq’s largest tribe, known as the Duleimi. Suleiman said this week that most of the fighters who now control Mosul, the city that fell this month, are not affiliated with ISIS. But he also warned that there would be no chance to put down the insurgency if Maliki remained in power.
Waleed al-Rawi, a former Iraqi general who has helped put some U.S. officials in touch with tribal leaders and former Iraqi military officers, told The Daily Beast, “My contacts are telling me they are willing to talk to the Americans about the entire situation. They say they will fight al Qaeda but we need to change the government first.”
For now senior U.S. officials stress that the United States is not going to be picking winners and losers in Iraqi politics. Iraqis voted on April 30 in national elections and Maliki’s own party only won 92 parliamentary seats out of 328. He would need a coalition of 165 votes for a majority to stay in office. In his speech Thursday, Obama urged Iraqi political leaders to come together. “National unity meetings have to go forward to build consensus across Iraq’s different communities,” he said. “Now that the results of Iraq’s recent election has been certified, a new parliament should convene as soon as possible.”
But nonetheless, a senior administration official who briefed reporters Thursday on Iraq said U.S. diplomats in Baghdad are not using leverage or pressure on Maliki to persuade him to leave office.
This has not stopped other political leaders from auditioning for the role, however.
Brooke would not say if Chalabi was eyeing the top job himself. But he did point out that the former exile leader—who is now a member of parliament and a senior member of the Shi’ite party affiliated with Iraq's powerful Hakim family—supported the creation of a national reconciliation committee and the release of Sunni prisoners detained without charge. What’s more, Brooke added, Chalabi “is now open to reconsideration of the national de-Baathification law.”
That’s the law that purged members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party from Iraq’s government—the law that Chalabi helped write. Not surprising, the de-Baathification law is one piece of legislation that has infuriated Iraq’s Sunni minority, who say it has been used to isolate their leaders from important national positions.
For now, Obama is leaving his options open for further intervention inside Iraq. In his speech Thursday, Obama left open the possibility that the U.S. Air Force may begin to launch air strikes inside Iraq. Buzzfeed reported Thursday that the U.S. may strike targets inside Syria as well, where ISIS forces are fighting Assad. “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama said. Maliki has asked Obama since November for air strikes inside his country, but Obama has rebuffed those requests until this week.
The new policy for Obama has won some praise from Congress. “What the president said today is a much better place to be than we were 24 hours ago… there’s the beginning of the outlines of what I hope to be a concrete plan to rally around,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has been a vocal critic of Obama’s Iraq policy, also called the speech and the new plan a “step in the right direction.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who opposed American military intervention in Syria, emerged from what he called an “incredibly sober” classified briefing Thursday convinced that the national security stakes were higher with Iraq. “It may make sense to give some limited, short-term military assistance to the Iraqi government,” he told reporters, saying he was “very open to the president’s case” on sending military advisers to Iraq, depending on the scope and exposure they’ll have to combat.
A senior administration official said a good portion of the 275 troops deployed to Iraq at the moment are elite army and Navy special operators who are there to protect Americans and get them safely out of the country. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
That official and a U.S. defense official said the Pentagon had presented the White House with multiple plans. One included sending U.S. special forces advisers to various Iraqi units to help the Iraqis coordinate their offensive, and to gather intelligence to help inform the U.S. counterterrorism effort against ISIS—but not to take part in combat. A second option included air strikes by drone or jet, if the U.S. could gather sufficient intelligence to hit such targets.
Complicating the mission was that Maliki still had not given written consent to give either basing rights for such aircraft or legal immunity for the U.S. troops that would act as advisers. Moreover, American intelligence and military sources still say they don’t know whom exactly they would target in those strikes. But the incoming troops—who undoubtedly include intelligence specialists and forward air controllers—will undoubtedly be used to try to fill in those gaps, as well as rekindle old alliances in Iraq.
—with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier and Tim Mak